Hundreds of students in UK sanctioned over racist or offensive online posts

Hundreds of university students have been disciplined or expelled for making racist, sexually explicit or homophobic comments on social media in recent years, it has been revealed.

A number of top universities have punished students for posting Islamophobic, racist, antisemitic, homophobic and transphobic comments, or pictures of offensive weapons being brandished and other offensive content online.

Data obtained through freedom of information requests from 92 universities in the UK shows 277 students have been sanctioned for this kind of behaviour in the past three years. This figure includes 104 in 2018–19.

Experts have described the figures as “very worrying”, saying that universities must provide safe and inclusive places.

The universities with the highest number of disciplinary actions were the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Bedfordshire, with 22 students having been disciplined.

At Loughborough University, 18 students were sanctioned for posts categorised as indecent, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, offensive or deemed to be “pranks”.

The university’s chief operating officer, Richard Taylor, said: “We are proud to take a proactive role in tackling hate speech. There is no place for hate speech in our community in person or online.”

At the University of Surrey, one student was given a year-long suspension for racist and antisemitic “jokes” on Facebook. Another student was expelled for racist posts on Instagram.

Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow at Imperial College London, called the findings “very worrying”.

He added: “Racist and homophobic remarks can’t be dismissed. From my student support role, I know that students have enough challenges to deal with and they don’t need ill-thought-out, so-called pranks from their peers to add to these. If a student does feel that they’re being targeted on social media, I’d encourage them to let staff know so that we can address this.”

Lancaster said universities are meant to provide a safe, inclusive and welcoming space for all and that students need to think before they post.

Dr Omar Khan, the director of the Runnymede Trust, agreed the figures were worrying, adding they are likely “to be the tip of the iceberg, with many incidents going unreported”.

“The findings remind us that a university education is no inoculation against racism, and the extent of discriminatory attitudes and behaviours across society … The threat of racism on campuses is being downplayed in media-driven moral panics on free speech, and university administrators must ensure they protect BME students from violence and harassment.”

Last year a number of law students were expelled from the University of Exeterbecause of racist comments in the Bracton Law Society’s WhatsApp group. The students were sanctioned over a series of comments including racial epithets and messages such as: “If you ain’t English, go home,” “bomb the mosques” and “we need a race war” which were reported to university authorities by a fellow student, Arsalan Motavali.

The NUS Black Students’ officer, Ilyas Nagdee, said the data was not surprising and the union’s own research has shown that such language remains part of the day-to-day experiences of black, Jewish, Muslim and LGBT+ students across the country.

“Social media is often, sadly, a reflection of what is happening in the wider world,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “Universities should be inclusive environments where everyone has the opportunity to reach their potential … Inciting hatred of any kind is wholly unacceptable.”

A University of Central Lancashire spokesperson said: “The University of Central Lancashire promotes lawful, open debate, the discussion of varying views and academic freedom and has in place robust procedures to ensure this can take place … While not specifically monitoring individual student social media accounts, any potential issues or concerns linked to adverse comments are picked up, taken seriously and acted upon appropriately. In the last five years we have taken action in only 22 cases.”